Lifeboats may be leaking fuel in Arctic waters

Lifeboats swept from Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig as it was battered by stormy seas may have leaked as much as 272 gallons of diesel fuel along an Alaskan island’s shores, according to Coast Guard officials that hope to inspect the beached vessels on Thursday.

Assessment crews discovered the potential leaks while searching the shoreline on Sitkalidak Island near where the Kulluk conical drilling unit grounded on Dec. 31. Although the 266-foot rig has since been towed to sheltered Kiliuda Bay 30 miles away, some debris was left behind, including a rescue boat and four survival boats.

The Coast Guard’s calculation on possible spilled fuel is based on the capacity of tanks on the survival boats, which can hold up to 68 gallons each. While responders have determined one boat’s tank is intact, at least two have been damaged and another tank is inaccessible, so its condition hasn’t been determined.

Read more: Feds order Arctic drilling probe after rig accident

Timeline of Kulluk grounding and recovery

A “unified command” consisting of the Coast Guard, state officials, Shell and others vowed to clean up any oil or fuel released on the shoreline once response crews examine the tanks. A local archaeologist visited the grounding site on Tuesday and “did not identify any cultural artifacts of interest that the cleanup would disturb,” the unified command said.

Shell’s Kulluk conical drilling unit collided with the rocky shore of Alaska’ Sitkalidak Island on Dec. 31, following a five-day battle to tow the unpropelled rig to safe harbor amid 70-mph winds and waves that climbed four-stories high. Shell had been towing the 266-foot floating rig to a Seattle shipyard two months after it finished boring the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea. On Monday, salvage teams successfully pulled it to Kiliuda Bay, where they are doing further investigations.

On Thursday, investigators planned to continue using remote-operated vehicles to assess the hull, but so far, assessments have shown “no sign of leakage from the Kulluk,” the unified command said. Roughly 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and other petroleum liquids are on board the rig.

Environmentalists have warned that any fuel spill in the region could harm critical habitat for Steller sea lions and sea otters, important fisheries and overwintering areas for king eiders and other birds.

Read ongoing FuelFix coverage on the Kulluk rig accident:

Jan. 9 – Salazar cites ‘troubling sense’ about Arctic drilling mishaps
Jan. 8 – Feds order Arctic drilling probe after rig accident
Jan. 7 – Inspectors set to look at rescued Shell drilling rig
Jan. 7 – Shell and Coast Guard are towing rig
Jan. 5 – Rig grounding could put Shell’s Arctic drilling plans on ice
Jan. 2 – Shell spoof site drawing fresh attention after rig runs aground
Jan. 1 – Kulluk drilling rig accident stokes fresh fears on Arctic drilling
Jan. 1 – Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig runs aground near Alaskan island
Dec. 30 – Tow line breaks as Shell drilling rig pulled to safe harbor